Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What Matters Most: Plaxico Burress - Hiding In Plain Sight

Normally, TiT throws up the Five That Matter each week, discussing the important games to be watching for. This is the Super Bowl, however, and in two weeks, everything is going to matter. But because we can't discuss every single part of the game, we're going to spend the next two weeks looking at the characters, settings, and conflicts that matter most to Super Bowl XLII. Today, Plaxico Burress.

In trying to find the best angle from which to view Plaxico Burress, there are a lot of options that seem initially obvious, but are ultimately shallow and insufficient for determining who he is as he enters the Super Bowl. For starters, Plaxico Burress is not simply a perennial underachiever; saying that diminishes his significant value to the team, his proven ability to take over any game he’s in, and it ignores the fact that his own story has been inextricably tied to Eli Manning’s rocky development. He is also not simply another big receiver. Indeed, perhaps nobody has been more responsible for the delay in the realization of the Big Receiver Revolution we’re so high on here than Burress, whose inability to live up to his physical gifts acted as a cautionary tale to NFL GMs for such a long time. Indeed, if we were to take the general accounts of Burress's attitude as gospel, one would have to wonder whether, as important as he is to the game, Burress cared about the upcoming Super Bowl at all.

Then there is the infamous account of his night at a New York nightclub. After spending an evening out, presumably doing the kind of things that rich young people in The City do, Burress allegedly walked out on a $2000 bar tab because he was unhappy with the amount of attention he was receiving from the female patrons. That, to me, is the perfect place to begin any discussion of Plaxico Burress: A 6’5”, 232 pound multi-millionaire who plays professional football and throws tantrums because he still can’t get noticed at clubs.

Burress’s many distinctive traits, from his freakish stature to even his name, ought to make obscurity hard to come by, and yet it is the shadow beneath which he has spent the bulk of his NFL career. Burress has never been named to a Pro Bowl. Despite his clear ability to turn games around, he has never been thought of as an elite receiver, the kind of player that must be prepared for. Instead, he is always mentioned as an example of a player who, though very talented, has never been great. This is, unfortunately, a hell that is largely of Plaxico’s own making. Look through his career stats, and you’ll find too many games in which he’s vanished. His own teammates have called him out for taking plays off, essentially making himself disappear. This is made all the more odd considering that the very reason why Burress decided to come to New York was so that he could be made more of an offensive factor, used in more ways, highlighted for being everything that he was meant to be.

It’s hell for someone with great gifts and ambitions to be normal. Underachieve, and you can always find something to blame; you can claim injury or unfair circumstances or any number of setbacks that are beyond your control. Be great, and you can never lack for praise and the benefits of fame. Normalcy, however, makes you nothing. Nobody cares about normal people. Normalcy turns individuals into static. It swallows up a 6’5”, 232lbs athlete and makes him invisible. Wonder what made Plaxico so angry that night? It’s not that he couldn’t get a girl; money, fame, and good looks always win out in the long run. It’s the fact that people didn’t see him without his acting out, the fact that, even after all this time in the league, even after coming to the city that makes stars, he still had to do something out of the ordinary to be SOMEONE in public.

That nightclub tantrum set the tone for this entire NFL season, which has been Plaxico Burress’s last stand against the anonymity of being normal. We’ve seen him emerge as a gamebreaker, throwing up high effort, high result performances in both wins and losses, almost defeating the New England Patriots on his own. He’s angrier, and there’s something in his game that feels a little more desperate. It’s the kind of desperation that follows almost everybody who wants to be remembered, rare, boring exceptions aside. Last week, he walked into Green Bay and made a Pro Bowl caliber corner look amateurish, using every catch to send a message to the Packers sideline, but more importantly to the league as a whole, a message that has underscored every one of his outstanding performances this year: YOU CAN’T COVER ME; YOU CAN’T IGNORE ME; I AM NOT NORMAL. Against New England, he must do the same if he hopes to permanently entrench himself as one of the league’s special receivers. The Super Bowl is where legends are made. We remember the name David Givens (DAVID GIVENS) for the mere fact that he’s a champion; how much more could Plaxico Burress, with his gifts and achievements, be remembered if he gained a ring of his own? If, however, he loses, he’ll go back to being the same Plaxico Burress we’ve always known him to be, neither hot nor cold, and at age 30, it’s unlikely he’ll get too many more shots to become anything more than that. Given how we’ve seen him crushed by that image before, Plaxico has as much to lose in this Super Bowl as anybody, if not more.

(Welcome Deadspin readers. Feel free to keep checking in for more of our unique brand of Super Bowl analysis throughout the week.)

No comments: